21st February is International Mother Language Day and our blog is hosting a 2 day celebration of languages. A series of blog posts by people from different walks of life - sharing their thoughts on languages, memories and more. International Mother Language Day is an observance held annually on 21 February worldwide to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism.
(This post was sent by Sudeshna Shome Ghosh. Sudeshna is Editorial Director of Red Turtle, a children’s book imprint. She has worked in the publishing industry for nearly two decades and when she is not editing children’s books she is either reading or sleeping but pretending to read.)
The other day, I was at an upscale clothes store and idly looking at a stack of tshirts for men. Suddenly, what caught my eye and made me examine a whole pile of them, was not their amazing design (really? In men’s tshirts? But let me not digress.) but the fact that they were all Phantom themed shirts. Yes, Phantom, ‘The Ghost Who Walks’. There he was, suddenly out of the pages of comic books and swaggering across chests, thulping villains with his deadly ringed fist.
The friend who was with me saw me looking through the tshirts and we got talking about comics from our childhood. ‘I read Phantom in Bangla too, you know,’ I told him. As a long suffering listener of my rambling stories about books, he waited for me to explain. So I did.
A childhood in the 1970s and 1980s meant no television, lots of time to play with friends and never a dearth of books to read. Or magazines. For children who read Bangla, there were some wonderful children’s magazines that we devoured. My favourite was Anandamela. Yes, there were Shuktara and Sandesh too, but we subscribed to Anandamela and gobbled down the stories and comic strips in it regularly.
One of the things that we looked forward to, and that I now find difficult to explain to others why exactly, was reading the serialized Tintin and Phantom comics that appeared here, translated into Bangla. Now, it wasn’t like we didn’t or couldn’t read the English originals. They were available at home and in neighborhood lending libraries. But alongside them, there were also these Bangla ones. And much as we laughed and delighted in ‘Billions of blue blistering barnacles’, or Snowy’s drunken antics, or Thomson and Thompson’s bunglings, we also laughed equally hard at joto shob gneri guglir jhaank (Billions of blue blistering barnacles in Bangla), or Kuttush as Snowy, or Ronson and Johnson in the place of the twin detectives.
The Bengali comics were not just straightforward iterations of the English text in another language. The words here carried unique Bengali nuances. Later, after the advent of Google, I learnt that they were translated by Nirendranath Chakraborty, a Sahitya Akademi award-winning poet. It delights me today that for someone like him Tintin was not just ‘children’s comics’. He translated the sense of adventure, the comic interludes, the oddball characters in such a way that they fit right into our own Bengali middle-class lives.
Just as an example, in The Castafiore Emerald, Captain Haddock is out on his wheelchair (he has sprained his ankle trying to flee Bianca Castafiore’s arrival but in vain) on the Marlinspike grounds. There he meets Professor Calculus and the two have a conversation where the slightly deaf professor talks mainly about a new kind of rose that he has grown. Hiding behind the bushes are paparazzi who are staking out the grounds for juicy gossip about the Milanese Nightingale who is visiting Marlinspike. Unfortunately, a hive of bees get after them and they have to flee. The captain, furious at this, sees them but is unable to give chase thanks to his bad foot. Instead, he yells after them, and then turns to the professor and asks: ‘Who were those ectoplasms, bolting like rabbits?’
In the Bengali version, this is all translated faithfully, but ‘ectoplasms’ becomes ‘bandor’ (monkey): Kintu bandor-gulo kaara, khorgosher moto dourey palalo? And thus, one of Haddock’s typical turns of phrase is transposed into Bengali without sounding forced or silly and retaining the humour.
I remember reading the Phantom comics too in Bangla, where he was called Aranyadev. These books carried one along with their sheer pace of action and adventure and I remember being captivated by the gorgeous Diana, Phantom’s wife and his twin children Kit and Heloise. That they were all speaking in Bengali despite their completely Caucasian looks didn’t strike me as odd at all. After all, having these stories available in another language meant simply that there were double the number of books to read!
Now, in a strange sort of reversal of that, I see many of our childhood Bengali comic strips and characters being made available in English. So Nante Fante, who are two naughty boys always getting up to mischief talk in slightly ungrammatical English. Even well-loved Bengali children’s classics like Chander Pahar, or popular stories like Gosain Baganer Bhoot are available as comics in English thanks to an intrepid Bengali publisher.
What does this say about the state of our children’s ability to read languages? I am a little worried that it shows there may be enough Bengali children out there who can’t read the Bangla originals and are making do with these translations which are not always of the highest quality. Yet, I see my own 13 year old devouring them happily and somewhere, I am a bit relieved that he is reading these silly, funny and harmless books from my childhood. At least now we can discuss how Nante and Fante outwitted Keltuda and laugh over those antics.
And so it goes on, this cycle of languages and books and ideas. If there are as many stories as there are people on this planet, there are billions more to listen and read, and we can only hope that our languages keep intersecting and breathing life into each other so that we are never out of a story on a lazy summer afternoon.